Since late-summer, all the talk in college basketball has revolved around how great the Duke Blue Devils are. Duke this. Duke that.
It’s not like they weren’t deserving of the attention. Krzyzewskiville came into the season ready to defend it’s 2010 national championship with most of its top players returning and an had an outstanding incoming freshman class to boot.
They looked almost unbeatable at 15-0, but then lost to an ordinary Florida State team last Thursday, so off to the scrap heap with them. Not really, but there is a new sheriff in college basketball town.
The polls say it’s Ohio State. A few voters believed it to be Syracuse until they were abused by Pittsburgh, which probably made the one lonely voter who gave the Panthers their only first place tally mark feel justified.
As usual, they’re all wrong. The No. 2 ranked Kansas Jayhawks are once again the team to beat, just like last year and in 2008 when they owned the throne after defeating Memphis in one of the greatest title games ever played.
Kansas, No. 1 in the Ratings Percentage Index, is 18-0 heading into Saturday’s showdown with No. 11 Texas at Allen Fieldhouse. Head Coach Bill Self has at his disposal a combination of size, athleticism, experience, and depth.
Educated fans from Duke, Ohio State, Syracuse, and Pittsburgh will now start saying how weak Kansas’ schedule has been and how it barely beat the likes of USC, Michigan, Iowa State, and Nebraska.
I’ll nip that in the bud by saying the Jayhawks’ strength of schedule (20th) ranks the hardest among those five teams (Syracuse- 27th, Pitt- 31st, Duke- 52nd, OSU- 61st).
On the near losses front, Syracuse had them against William & Mary, Iona, Georgia Tech, NC State, and Seton Hall. Any tournament teams there? Ohio State opened Big 10 play by defeating Iowa, Michigan, and Penn State—three of the conference’s projected bottom-feeders, by five, four, and three points, respectively. Duke lost to Florida State and barely beat a bad Marquette team in November, while Pitt needed a miracle to beat Providence, and struggled in an eight-point win over Rhode Island.
Kansas has only one win over a top-25 team. That sounds pretty weak until you consider that Syracuse, Duke, and Ohio State each have two. Pittsburgh is well ahead of the pack with four, but it also lost at home to Tennessee, who has fallen to the likes of Charlotte, College of Charleston, and Oakland.
There are only 25 ranked teams in college basketball, and this is the one sport where the best teams generally try to avoid eachother at all cost, a fact underlined by the numbers above.
Now that I’ve finished defending Kansas’ schedule, let’s move on to what makes this team special.
First and foremost is its depth. Basketball teams have one of three things: no depth, depth, or quality depth. Depth is simply having extra bodies to put on the floor, ones that may or may not have a positive impact while they’re on the court. Quality depth is having three or more players off the bench that you can depend on to expertly fill a role on a nightly basis.
The Jayhawks have that. Self remarkably has 10 players that average at least 14.5 minutes per game, six of which average at least eight points. They are led by Morris twins, Marcus and Markieff, who combine to contribute a little over 30 points and 15 rebounds per night.
Freshman phenom Josh Selby has made his impact felt in the nine games he’s played after serving an early suspension to begin the season, averaging 12 points, three rebounds, three assists, and shooting a robust 42 percent from downtown. Selby’s presence elevates Kansas from a very good to potentially great team.
Under Self, Kansas has always been one of the nation’s most prolific scoring teams and that hasn’t changed this season. The Jayhawks rank ninth in scoring at 83.2 points per game and lead the nation in field goal percentage, shooting a ridiculous 52.4 percent as a team. They have four players that shoot 40 percent or better from three-point land and have shot 37.3 percent collectively.
Their output on offense is staggering and they aren’t exactly slackers on the defensive end. Opponents have scored 70 points or more just four times in 18 tries this year and three failed to reach the half-century mark. Kansas ranks eighth nationally in field goal percentage defense, allowing opponents to shoot just 37.2 percent, while giving up an eyelash under 61 points a contest.
So they have three studs supported by great depth and are prolific at both ends of the floor, but neither of those reasons headline why Kansas is the team to beat.
Remember all the talk about how great Duke is coming into this season? Kansas knows the feeling because they were Duke before Duke was Duke.
The 2009-10 Jayhawks were supposed to be a shoe-in to reclaim the national championship. They played the part by finishing the regular season 32-2 and headed into the NCAA Tournament as the No. 1 overall seed. Then Ali Farokhmanesh and little Northern Iowa shocked the world by ending Kansas’ "One Shining Moment" well before it started.
Sherron Collins, Xavier Henry and Cole Aldrich left for the NBA. Marcus Morris was the Jayhawks’ leading scorer and every player in this year’s rotation, outside Selby, was in uniform that night, with five playing in the game.
You can bet that painful memory is cemented in the minds of Self and his players. Unfinished business is the biggest motivator in sports and this group is driven to claim what was believed to be rightfully theirs throughout all of last season.
With the Jayhawks’ collection of talent and experience, and the absence of one truly dominant team in college basketball, the road to the championship might well go through Lawrence.
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